Why Arts Business Leaders Should Not Try to Do It All

“Leading is hard. It takes thought, intention and humility—and sometimes it requires the moral courage to make necessary changes. While those of us who guide arts organizations wake up every day with the goal of contributing to the human spirit, we must step up our efforts as leaders.” —Rachel Moore, president & CEO, The Music Center

Rachel Moore. Courtesy of The Music Center

Rachel Moore has the kind of deep background in the arts that compels people to listen when she speaks. After identifying as a dancer all her life and dancing professionally with American Ballet Theatre for six years, she found a calling in advocating for artists’ rights. Eventually she returned to ABT as executive director/CEO, a position she held for 11 years. In 2015, she became president and CEO for The Music Center in Los Angeles, the largest performing arts center on the West Coast. —DBW

While there are those who suggest that executive leadership requires you to have “all the answers,” I don’t agree. Instead, I believe that true leadership articulates where one wants to go; why the desired destination is important; and what the values are that those on the journey should embrace. The nuts and bolts of how one gets there is a collective process that requires the talents and skills of a diverse team of people. 

Rather than them trying to do it all, I offer this advice for leaders in our field:

1. Build a team that does not look or think like you, and be sure it represents a diverse set of skills.

As Doris Kearns Goodwin famously noted in her biography of Abraham Lincoln, Good leadership requires you to surround yourself with people of diverse perspectives who can disagree with you without fear of retaliation. The point is not to get to your decision; but, rather, to determine the right decision. Research shows, time and again, that diverse teams are smarter, more productive and more innovative. (See “Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter,” by David Rock and Heidi Grant, for instance, in Harvard Business Review.) As you build your team, be honest about your strengths and weaknesses and hire people who are different from you and who have differing skills sets. Reach outside your comfort zone and curate your team to be strong and capable as one unit. 

2. Build a personal board of directors.

In my book, The Artist’s Compass, I suggest that one establish a group of personal advisors who will provide support and advice. I call this a “personal board of directors.” These advisors should be people who support you as an individual (rather than just your organization). They should have the skills or knowledge you lack, challenge you in different ways, tell you the truth no matter what, and understand your professional goals while bringing different points of view to the table. Having people with whom you can vent, strategize, brainstorm, etc., without having to worry about the politics of your workplace, is revelatory and a true stress reliever. 

3. Don’t feel you have to be perfect or get every decision “right.”

We are human. In my experience, if the people in your organization believe you are trying to do the right thing for the right reason and that you have their backs, your missteps will be forgiven. Alternatively, if your constituents feel your actions are self-serving and/or you will take the easy route versus doing what is right, even your smallest mistakes will be held against you and used as evidence of your lack of leadership skills. Integrity and candor go a long way. In this age of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” people need both honesty and stability more than ever. 

4. Titles mean nothing.

There is a profound difference between true leadership and titular authority. A strong leader does not have to declare his or her title in order to be in charge. This is true for those at every level. People follow leaders, not titles. Over the years, I have probably engaged in some “title inflation,” believing this action would make an employee feel better or rewarded. I understand why I did it but regret some of those decisions. An individual must demonstrate the level of leadership expected of the title, before the title is conferred. Rarely, in my experience, have people “grown into” their titles. 

5. Treat everyone in your organization as a moral equal.

People need to believe they are respected, regardless of their position. For many practical reasons, we cannot treat all our employees equally in terms of compensation, responsibility or authority. However, we can treat everyone as a moral equal—that is, deserving of the same level of dignified and professional treatment regardless of rank. This goes back to the notion of employees knowing you have their backs, which means they must be treated with respect. This does not mean that one is a pushover or lacks standards; rather, it says everyone is entitled to the same level of professionalism, courtesy and candor. 

A version of this article first appeared for Positioning Ballet, presented by Dutch National Opera & Ballet. It was sparked by impromptu comments Moore made at the 2019 conference in Amsterdam.